Sunday, April 11, 2010

Making Sense of the Resurrection in a Stressed-Out Age - Part I.

Today is commonly called “Low Sunday”. The origin of the name is uncertain, but it’s apparently intended as a contrast between it and the great Easter Sunday festival, and also, perhaps, to signify that, being the Octave Day of Easter, it was considered part of that feast, though in a lower degree. In Episcopal circles, of course, its significance may also have to do with traditionally lower Sunday attendance!

In today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), Jesus reminds “doubting” Thomas, apparently a visual learner who needed to see before he could accept Jesus’ Resurrection, that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Though you and I didn’t witness Jesus being raised from the dead, yet as Christians we hold by faith that, in fact, God did raise Jesus, thus fulfilling Jesus’ promise of salvation. But living in the times in which we do, in an age where many are stressed-out and fearful for a multitude of reasons, and where many are skeptical or outright disbelieving about the hope which the Risen Christ holds out to humankind, how are you and I to make sense of the Resurrection?

I believe that the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse, as it is called, can help us answer this question. The Epistle readings for the next six Sundays, coincidentally, are taken from it. Today, at Shepherd by the Sea Episcopal/Lutheran Mission, Gualala, CA, in the Diocese of Northern California, I began a three-week series of homilies on Revelation, called Making Sense of the Resurrection in a Stressed-Out Age, which I’m including here on the blog starting today.

Please note at the start: the book is NEVER called Revelations. It is the Book of Revelation or simply Revelation, or The Apocalypse. The equivalent word in Greek, apokalypsis, means an uncovering, an unveiling, a disclosure, a revealing of something. From the opening chapter, Revelation is an unveiling or revealing of the complete work which the Risen Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed One, has accomplished and continues to accomplish for the benefit of all humankind to the glory of the Father. And so “what must soon take place”, in the first verse, are not things unknown to the readers, but point to the continuous unfolding of God’s providence now in the fullness of time. According to John, there’s an order in God’s method of revealing these mysteries, reflected in the sequence of persons who receive: God to Jesus to an angel to John to the reader to the hearer. Blessedness, true hearing of the message, according to Revelation, is guaranteed to the one “who takes to heart what is written in it...”, for in that person the true purpose of the disclosed message is lived out.

The Book of Revelation is probably the most misunderstood, misused, and, by most Christians, the most neglected writing in the Bible. What it reveals or unfolds for us are past, present and future hidden things. The writer’s primary purpose, however, is pastoral. John writes, not to foretell the future or to satisfy curiosity, but to strengthen the faith and encourage perseverance of fellow-Christians in a string of churches in the western sector of Asia Minor in the late 1st century. They, as we, lived in a society full of anxiety, fear, upheaval, and uncertainty, particularly because of Roman government-inspired religious persecution. Because they faced active opposition, the writer had to communicate in a cryptic way, a sort of code, in terms which they, but not their adversaries, would readily understand. His message is expressed with symbols and images recognizable in the Christian community, but not by the surrounding pagan culture.

The first caution for us modern readers of this immensely hopeful book is to not get caught up in the minute, specific details and symbols, but rather to look at the bold and broad strokes which the author paints: to get an overall sense and “feel” for the message he’s trying to communicate in coded language.

For example, certain numbers are symbolic. The number 7, in gematria, a system of assigning numerical value to words/phrases, was the symbol of perfection, wholeness, whereas the number 6 signified imperfection, evil. Thus, the famous 666, the number of the Beast, equals the epitome of evil. Simply stated, the writer’s overall message to his 1st century hearers and their descendants, including us, is that there’s a constant and never-ending struggle between evil and good, between the forces of darkness and God. Yet, no matter what form evil takes, the good will always ultimately prevail. Persecution, suffering, and a lot of other bad things may continue to happen to good people in the short-term, but in the end, the Risen and living Jesus, God’s Son, along with those faithful to him and to his purpose, will always emerge victorious.

As to who wrote the Book of Revelation, it appears to have been authored by a Jewish Christian prophet/teacher, named John. Reliable scholars agree that this person was undoubtedly not John, son of Zebedee, one of the Apostles. The implausibility, for example, appears in Chapter 21 where the writer himself records a vision of the New Jerusalem emerging from heaven, on whose walls, he says, are written “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb”, a group in which the writer, obviously, doesn’t include himself. (21:14). Nor is he the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Even in the 3rd century Dionysius of Alexandria raised questions based on clear differences in thought, style, and language. The name “John” being a common name in the early Christian community, both Dionysius and, earlier, Papias simply referred to Revelation’s author as “John the Elder/Presbyter”. It’s certainly possible, even probable, that John the Presbyter had some contact with the school of writers who produced John’s Gospel and Epistles. With all this in mind, I’ll simply refer to the writer of Revelation as “John”.

John launches Revelation by addressing each of the seven churches, who represent the whole Church: those of Smyrna and Philadelphia, about which nothing bad is said; Sardis and Laodicea, about whom nothing good is said; and finally Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira. These last three were dealing with problems of false teaching; Smyrna and Philadelphia struggled with persecution; Sardis and Laodicea were plagued with complacency, something uncomfortably pertinent to the current American church scene! All of them were challenged not to sacrifice their moral and religious principles to those of the surrounding society.

Each letter to the churches begins with a description of the Risen Jesus: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand...the words of him who is the First and the Last...the words of him who has the double-edged sword...”, etc. John recalls the presence of the Risen Christ in, and his vigilance over, each of the churches. Ever-present, Jesus knows perfectly the condition of the whole Church, good and bad. He gives praise and he notes shortcomings, and at the end of each address Jesus reminds them: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Just as the Spirit has inspired this message of John, so they and we should be constantly tuned in to the Spirit in order to live out the message of Jesus.

John gives us a remarkable picture of the early Church: of the many faces of fervor in the early Christian communities, living as they did amid pagan neighbors. Many are poor, forced, because of their beliefs, to live as outcasts of society. John’s personality as a leader shines through. Sometimes he’s stern, sometimes inflexible, but he’s always desirous of firm and faithful allegiance to the Risen Lord. We see Jesus, alive in the Church, his divinity in full splendor, as well as his tender humanity. Jesus is the loving Friend of 3:20, who knocks at the door, eagerly anticipating an invitation to come in and to be our guest, as well as our host simultaneously.

In Chapter 4, the first of four heavenly interludes, John uses a rush of lavish symbolic imagery to portray heaven’s court and God’s presence. He introduces 24 elders, priest-like figures, representing the glorified saints of the Old and New Testaments, along with four living creatures, with wings and eyes, symbolizing the whole created universe in worship and praise of God the Creator. In these creatures the highest powers of nature and life are united into one: patience and tenaciousness as in a bull; impetuousness and violence as in a lion; swiftness as lightning and power as in an eagle; and intelligence and reason as in humankind. From this assembly of glorified saints and all the created universe a mighty crescendo of praise rises up to God.

In Chapter 5 God appears to be holding a sealed scroll, a sort of papyrus leaf with text written on both sides, rolled up and sealed outside by seven wax seals, so that no one could begin reading until all the seals were broken. The scroll’s contents are beyond the capacity of creatures. God offers the scroll to anyone in heaven, on earth, or in Sheol, who can open it, but creation is powerless to accept that challenge. John weeps: a vivid way of signifying his worry and anxiety, and that of other Christians, who, faced with upheaval in their lives, try to understand what’s happening now and what’s to come. A heavenly representative reassures John and us that Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed over darkness and death through his own death and resurrection. Only Jesus, as Master of history, gives meaning to the Old Testament and to life, can solve its mysteries, and carry out whatever is decreed in the scroll.

John envisions the Risen Jesus as “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain”. This is the Lamb of the Jewish pascha or pesach, a word meaning to hop, to skip, to pass over: the “Paschal” Lamb, bearing the marks of sacrificial death, yet standing upright, full of life, victorious over every form of death. The seven horns indicate complete power; the seven eyes/spirits are God’s Holy Spirit/Breath, emanating from the Father and being poured out over the whole Church. As Jesus takes the scroll from the Father he is glorified (which is what we understand as the “Ascension”), and receives the adoration of angels and all creation along with the prayers of the Church, symbolized by rising incense. The heavenly assembly breaks out into song, the first of three in succession, acknowledging that as God and Redeemer, Jesus has the right to take in hand the unfolding of all the events of the past, present, and future and to give Scripture its full meaning.

The second song of praise speaks of seven things which Jesus the Lamb is worthy to “receive”, i.e., to reserve to himself and to lavish upon his creatures, namely, power, wealth (i.e., sharing in the riches of divinity, resulting from redemption), wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. In other words, the Risen Jesus engulfs us in all-encompassing and perfect salvation.

In the third song of praise John hears the glorious finale of a crescendo which has gradually picked up steam: first, from the four living creatures and the elders, then the living creatures, the elders and myriads of angels, and finally from all of the above, plus all of creation.

What’s the practical implication which you and I might draw from these ideas? Consider the phrase in the second song (5:9-10): “...with your blood you purchased [lit., went out to the marketplace for; a note of intentionality] [humans] for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests for our God...” The idea here is that God, in Jesus, deliberately chose our freedom, our liberation. The OT writers were highly aware that the “redemption” of Israel included freedom from Egyptian slavery, as well as the God of the Covenant binding them in relation to himself. NT writers picked up on this, as we see in Peter’s first letter: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light...” Again, Paul in Acts, speaking to the elders at Ephesus, says: “...Take care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son...

In the Old Testament the blood of the Paschal lamb, smeared over the tops and sides of the door frames, signifies to the destroying angel that the house’s occupants are God’s people and are to be spared. The Sinai Covenant sacrifices also indicate a community of life, a family relationship, with God. Blood is sprinkled upon the altar which symbolizes God, and then on all the people also. Since life is in the blood, this commingling signifies a blood relationship, a sharing of life.

In the New Testament, in an incredibly higher way, the Father in Jesus acquires the Church for Godself through the mediation of Jesus‘ own blood. Jesus‘ blood is also sacrificial, the symbol of his supreme act of self-emptying love and obedience, reversing our own subsequent, disobedience, rebellion, and turning away from God in selfishness.

Through the precious blood of Jesus, therefore, freely offered and given to his Father, humankind, which had cut itself off from God, is now set free and restored to relationship and solidarity with God “in Christ”, as St. Paul so often says in the Epistles. That's the reality of our lives, if we willingly accept it. God’s liberating us, God’s uniting us with Godself, in and through Jesus who was one of us is the astounding Good News of salvation. We each come to God in our own time and manner, but most of all, in that moment when you and I allow Jesus into our lives, so that he can lead us to the Father. For St. Paul it took a good many years of his own life, opposing Jesus and the Church, until, literally knocked down and blinded, he was led to understand the reality of what Jesus was doing to and for him, and for all of us: “...And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God] -- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard...I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel...” (Colossians 1:21-23)

In our own time, Bishop Jim Kelsey, of Northern Michigan, who died tragically in 2007 at age 55, left us a similar reminder and challenge to live as Resurrection people: “This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn close to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy...we are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.

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